Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217
Deception The main conflict of this play stems from the fact that Mrs. Alving feels remorse for her part in helping to deceive the world about what sort of man Captain Alving was. She feels that she should have told the truth to Oswald long ago. If she had been...
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The main conflict of this play stems from the fact that Mrs. Alving feels remorse for her part in helping to deceive the world about what sort of man Captain Alving was. She feels that she should have told the truth to Oswald long ago. If she had been honest with him all along, the disease that he inherited from his father may still have been unavoidable, but she could have saved him the confusion that he felt upon finding out that his father, who he thought was morally pure, had syphilis. His own character might have been less cynical if the truth about his father had not come as such a shock.
For his part, Pastor Manders supports the idea of deception. When Mrs. Alving talks about truth, he counters her with talk about ideals. He tells her that, regardless of what the true facts are, Oswald needs to have ideals, that she should not sour his image of his father if that is something that Oswald thinks he can believe in.
In the end, the pastor’s belief in deception turns against him. Because his own ideal is that Engstrand is basically a decent, if weak, person, he is more willing to believe what Engstrand says about the fire at the orphanage than what he himself remembers. Pastor Manders falls for a simple deception almost willingly because his grasp on truth is so completely flexible.
In Ghosts, the only true loyalty is between Mrs. Alving and her son. All other instances of loyalty seem pure, but they are actually based in social usefulness. The first example of this sort of insincere loyalty is in the early scene between Engstrand and Regina. He asks her to help him with the sailors’ home, making a feigned attempt to be concerned about her because she is his daughter. He is not intelligent enough, however, to stick with his case and eventually admits that he wants her there because it would be good for business to have a woman around. Later, he is just as transparently insincere about his loyalty when he tells Manders, ‘‘Jacob Engstrand may be likened to a guardian angel, he may, your Reverence.’’ The danger that he professes to ‘‘guard’’ the parson against is the charge that he burned down the orphanage, which is a charge that Engstrand himself made up.
Manders claims to be loyal to the sanctity of marriage. When discussing the time when Helena Alving came to his home after leaving his husband, though, his main focus is on the possible scandal that could have ensued. He’s less motivated by loyalty to religious and social doctrine than by fear of repercussions.
Oswald pretends to be loyal to Regina, the maid, but later on, after he reveals the facts about his disease, he talks about how he has counted on her to look after him when his disease makes him an invalid. Regina, for her part, professes her loyalty to Oswald until she finds out that they cannot be married and that he is ill. These are good reasons to not marry him and to realize that they will not have the relationship that she thought they would have, but she is extreme in tossing her loyalty aside, making plans to leave the house the very minute that she hears the news.
Ibsen uses Oswald’s disease to symbolize the corruption that is handed down from previous generations. When he tells his mother about being diagnosed, Oswald even quotes the doctor as making a statement that indicates a moral judgment beyond his medical one: ‘‘The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.’’ This makes sense because, in a strictly physical sense, it is Captain Alving’s blood that infected his unborn son. It makes just as much sense in a completely moral frame, too, because Oswald, after finding out that his father was sexually active, took on many of the same qualities. The facts that he smokes his father’s pipe, that he drinks constantly, and especially that he flirts with the family maid, just as his father did, are all directly related to being his father’s son. Ibsen uses the transmission of the syphilis infection to represent the fact that immorality passes from generation to generation as if it were a genetic condition.
The way that morality is carried through a family is also examined in the example of Regina. Throughout much of the play, she behaves as her mother did: she is a maid, conspicuously at the same house where her mother worked, and she is willing to be the mistress of a wealthy man to get what she wants. When she finds out that she is Captain Alving’s daughter, she refers to the Sailor’s Home that is named after him as ‘‘one house where I’ve every right to a place.’’ It is not a decent place for a woman, but her connection with Engstrand and with the Captain make it her birthright.
Pastor Manders worries that Mrs. Alving will be morally corrupted by reading new, free-thinking ideas, but the readings that he finds dangerous make her feel more secure. Rather than corrupting her, they just let her know that she is not alone in the way she sees things: as she tells him, ‘‘I seem to find explanation and confirmation of all sorts of things that I myself have been thinking.’’
Victim and Victimization
Ibsen’s style of realism does not allow for even the most downtrodden of characters to look like a victim. The most tragic figure in the play is Oswald, who suffers from a disease that was contracted by his father and who did not know that he was infected, did not even think that he could be infected, for much of his life. Still, his condition cannot be called victimization because his is not a decent personality that is being taken advantage of. At heart, Oswald is self-centered. He hates the thought of being ill because it will incapacitate him, and he is full of life. His attitude toward his mother is best summarized when he says, ‘‘you can be so very useful to me, now that I’m ill.’’ His relationship with Regina, too, is based on what she can do to help him in his illness. In a sense, the victim of the inherited venereal disease uses his misfortune to justify victimizing everyone around him.
In the course of the play, Mrs. Alving comes to reconsider her relationship with Captain Alving. At first, she tells Pastor Manders of the ways in which she was the captain’s victim. She describes her life with and without him, as a life and death struggle to keep Oswald from knowing his father’s true nature, although she later calls herself a coward for not telling him the truth. She describes the measures that she took to keep him home nights, so that he would not ruin his reputation by going to town and chasing women. She later regrets her actions, taking the responsibility on herself instead of blaming him for her actions; in fact, by the final act she sees him as her victim, because she suppressed ‘‘the overpowering joy of life that was in him.’’